While most Californians have understood for some time the need to manage the drawdown of surface water few have understood the same sustainable principles regarding the extraction of groundwater also hold true. Historically, groundwater management in California was not a difficult task, but demands from drought and modern pressures underscore the need to improve how we manage our groundwater reserves.
And now there is the added incentive of legislation that mandates management of groundwater – I’ll come back to this later.
The need to manage groundwater is highlighted by the fact that excluding glaciers and icepack, 95% of all the freshwater on earth is groundwater. Recent studies reveal that groundwater levels are much lower across California than we have ever seen. The residual impacts of overdraft are well documented, including less water, drying streams, impacts on aquatic species and degradation of water quality. Collaboration is essential to bringing groundwater levels back in balance and resolving California’s long term water problems.
There is good news on the horizon. UC Davis has conducted research over the last several years with very encouraging results. Deliberate flooding of farmlands may provide the key to recharging groundwater. Professors and farmers have intentionally flooded fields during times of peak flows when streams are high and plants are dormant. Initial findings indicate that farmers can replenish aquifers without harmful impacts to either crops or drinking water.
“On-farm flooding looks very promising,” said Professor Helen Dahlke with the Dept. of Land, Air and Water Resources. “We’re pleasantly surprised by how quickly water tables responded to on-farm flooding without damage to crops.”
The study provides a good understanding of the farmers’ potential to meaningfully contribute to California’s ongoing water challenges. Toby O’Geen, a specialist with UC Cooperative Extension at UC Davis, suggests that “3.6 million acres of farmland [across the State] have good recharge potential because they could likely accommodate deep percolation with little risk to crop damage or groundwater contamination from salts and nitrates in the soil”.
The team from Davis have worked with alfalfa farmers in Siskiyou County, almond growers in the Central Valley and pistachio and wine grape growers in Fresno County. “Our wine grapes were under water for five months, which raised a few eyebrows, but they did fine,” said Don Cameron, manager of Terranova Ranch project Fresno County.
“It was amazing to see how well the land absorbed the water and how quickly the water table rose,” said Jim Morris, Byran-Morris Ranch Manger in Siskiyou County. “That’s good news for farming and the environment.”
This challenge is recently complicated by new legislation that mandates management of groundwater. Sonoma County has until June of 2017 to meet deadlines imposed in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) signed into law in September of 2014. As a result, staff from the local governmental agencies eligible to implement groundwater plans are working to create a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (SGA). This Agency will have the authority to conduct studies, require groundwater extraction reports, regulate groundwater extraction and assess fees to cover costs of groundwater management.
To give farmers a voice on this matter, the Farm Bureau is working diligently to secure a seat at the SGA table. This is a challenge – as the law requires the seats be occupied by individuals who represent an agency that supplies water, manages water or manages land use activities. Once again we discover that while being part of the solution is easy for farmers, being a part of the process that develop policy around those solutions, is not. Rest assured, the Farm Bureau will secure a seat at the table.